In Dexter Filkins’ otherwise probing article in the May 13 New Yorker on the problem-from-hell that is Syria, Sen. John McCain fumes over the recent disclosure that all of President Obama’s top advisers—Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, and CIA director David Petraeus—had advised him to arm the Syrian rebels.
“There may be another time in history when a president’s entire national-security team recommended a course of action and he overruled them,” Filkins quotes McCain as saying, “but if there is, I’m not aware of it.”
For a military specialist who often regards himself as aligned with the right side of history, McCain (as the song goes) “don’t know much about history.” There are in fact many instances of presidents defying the advice of their national-security teams, and probably many more instances of presidents wishing that they had done so. A few:
- On the final day of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, all of President John F. Kennedy’s advisers urged him to bomb the Soviet missile sites in Cuba and, even more, to reject Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s offer of a Cuba-for-Turkey trade—that is, to pull his missiles out of Cuba if JFK pulled his out of Turkey. Kennedy took the offer.
- From late 1962 into 1963, all of Kennedy’s advisers supported the Joint Chiefs’ recommendation to send “combat troops” to Vietnam. Kennedy refused.
- In 1983, all of President Ronald Reagan’s advisers tried to talk him down from his enthusiasm for the “star wars” missile defense program—and, in 1986, they all opposed his stab at negotiating a deal with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Reagan ignored them.
- In late 2006, all of President George W. Bush’s top advisers opposed the “surge” in Iraq. Bush sided with the midlevel officials and retired officers who were pushing for the surge and a change of strategy. (This is ironic, as McCain now condemns those who opposed the surge, saying that they’ve been proved wrong by history.)
This is not to say that Obama was necessarily right, or that his advisers were wrong, on the issue of arming the Syrian rebels. But it is worth noting that Obama is far from the first president to take a pass on his advisers’ suggestions. In that sense, McCain misleads when he says that Obama “overruled” them. Obama is the president, the commander-in-chief. Panetta, Clinton, Dempsey, and Petraeus were his advisers; they have no decision-making authority to “overrule.”
So was Obama right to ignore their advice on Syria? There are two standards for making these sorts of judgments: First, did he have good reasons for acting (or not acting) the way he did? Second, did he turn out to be right?
On the first standard, Obama had plenty of reasons to justify holding off arms shipments. His advisers may have assured him that they could funnel the weapons only to the good rebels and keep them out of the hands of the bad rebels. But some of the weapons supplied to the rebels in Libya had somehow wound up in the hands of jihadists in Mali.* His advisers may have argued that backing the good rebels would buy us influence in the aftermath. Maybe, but 10 years of not just arming but fighting and dying on behalf of Nour al-Maliki’s government in Iraq hasn’t had that effect. (Governments tend to pursue their interests, regardless of who installed them; hence President George Washington’s neutrality in the British-French wars of the 1790s, despite the crucial support he’d received from France in America’s own recent war against the Crown.)
On the second standard, whether Obama was right, we obviously don’t yet know. There is the awkward matter of “red lines.” Obama had after all declared, five times in eight months (not an “off-the-cuff” remark), that if Bashar Assad or elements of his regime used chemical weapons, that would cross a “red line.” It would be “a game-changer from our perspective,” there would be “enormous consequences,” Assad would be “held accountable,” and so forth.
There is still some uncertainty on the who, what, and when of this line-crossing. Assad’s soldiers seem to have fired chemical weapons, but there are reports that the rebels did, too. Is this like a “double technical” in basketball? The referees scowl at both teams, but neither gets a free shot? Maybe. For a moment, Obama wins a reprieve. But at some point, he will have to do something. The question is what.
Here John McCain’s favorite subject, History, might be invoked—specifically, another anecdote from the Cuban missile crisis. On what turned out to be the final day of the crisis, Oct. 27, 1962, President Kennedy and his national-security advisers received a report that one of their U-2 spy planes, flying over Cuba, had been shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. The plane had crashed; the pilot was dead. On the tape that was secretly recording the deliberations, Kennedy is heard saying, “This is much of an escalation by them, isn’t it?”